Hearing on Interethnic Adoptions

Statement of Rita J. Simon, University Professor
School of Public Affairs and College of Law, American University

Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Human Resources
of the House Committee on Ways and Means

Hearing on Interethnic Adoptions

September 15, 1998

 


 

The fall of 1971 marked the beginning of my research about the impact of transracial adoptions on the children and parents involved in such adoptions. The work I did involved following the same cohort of families, all of whom lived in the Midwest from 1971 through 1991. In the course of the study, we conducted in-depth interviews with the parents, the birth children, and the transracially adopted children. Before describing the details of that study, I shall review the other major research that has been done on transracial adoption. The bottom line on all of the studies that have been done is that transracial adoption serves the children's best interests.

 

The work of Lucille Grow and Deborah Shapiro of the Child Welfare League represent one of the earliest studies of transracial adoption. Published in 1974, the major purpose of Black Children, White Parents was to assess how successful the adoption by white parents of black children had been. Their respondents consisted of 125 families.

 

On the basis of the children's scores on the California Test of Personality (which purports to measure social and personal adjustment), Grow and Shapiro concluded that the children in their study made about as successful an adjustment in their adoptive homes as other nonwhite children had in prior studies. They claimed that 77 percent of their children had adjusted successfully, and that this percentage was similar to that reported in other studies. Grow and Shapiro also compared the scores of transracially adopted children with those of adopted white children on the California Test of Personality. A score below the twentieth percentile was defined as reflecting poor adjustment, and a score above the fiftieth percentile was defined as indicating good judgment. They found that the scores of their transracially adopted children and those of white adopted children matched very closely.

 

In 1977, Joyce Ladner–using the membership lists of the Open Door Society and the Council on Adoptable Children as her sample frames–conducted in-depth interviews with 136 parents in Georgia, Missouri, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut, and Minnesota. Before reporting her findings, she introduced a personal note:

This research brought with it many self-discoveries. My initial feelings were mixed. I felt some trepidation about studying white people, a new undertaking for me. Intellectual curiosity notwithstanding, I had the gnawing sensation that I shouldn't delve too deeply because the finding might be too controversial. I wondered too if couples I intended to interview would tell me the truth. Would some lie in order to coverup their mistakes and disappointments with the adoption? How much would they leave unsaid? Would some refuse to be interviewed because of their preconceived notions about my motives? Would they stereotype me as a hostile black sociologist who wanted to "prove" that these adoptions would produce unhealthy children?

By the end of the study, Ladner was convinced that "there are whites who are capable of rearing emotionally healthy black children." Such parents, Ladner continued, "must be idealistic about the future but also realistic about the society in which they now live."

To deny racial, ethnic, and social class polarization exists, and to deny that their child is going to be considered a "black child," regardless of how light his or her complexion, how sharp their features, or how straight their hair, means that these parents are unable to deal with reality, as negative as they may perceive that reality to be. On the other hand, it is equally important for parents to recognize that no matter how immersed they become in the black experience, they can never become black. Keeping this in mind, they should avoid the pitfalls of trying to practice an all-black lifestyle, for it too is unrealistic in the long run, since their family includes blacks and whites and should, therefore, be part of the larger black and white society.

Charles Zastrow's doctoral dissertation, published in 1977, compared the reactions of 41 white couples who had adopted a black child against a matched sample of 41 white couples who has adopted a white child. All of the families lived in Wisconsin. The two groups were matched on the age of the adopted child and on the socioeconomic status of the adoptive parent. All of the children in the study were preschoolers. The overall findings indicated that the outcomes of the transracial (TRA) placements were as successful as the in-racial (IRA) placements. And Zastrow commented:

One of the most notable findings is that TRA parents reported considerable fewer problems related to the care of the child have arisen than they anticipated prior to the adoption. . . . Many of the TRA couples mentioned that they became "color-blind" shortly after adopting; i.e., they stopped seeing the child as a black, and came to perceive the child as an individual who is a member of their family.

When the parents were asked to rate their overall satisfaction with the adoptive experience, 99 percent of the TRA parents and 100 percent of the IRA parents checked "extremely satisfying" or "more satisfying than dissatisfying." And on another measure of satisfaction–one in which the parents rated their degree of satisfaction with certain aspects of their adoptive experience– out of a possible maximum of 98 points, the mean score of the TRA parents was 92.1 and the IRA parents, 92.0.

Using a mail survey in 1981, William Feigelman and Arnold Silverman compared the adjustment of 56 black children adopted by white families against 97 white children adopted by white families. The parents were asked to assess their child's overall adjustment and to indicate the frequency with which their child demonstrated emotional and physical problems. Silverman and Feigelman concluded that the child's age–not the transracial adoption–had the most significant impact on development and adjustment. The older the child, the greater the problems. They found no relationship between the adjustment and racial identity.

W. M. Womak and W. Gulton's study of transracial adoptees and non-adopted black preschool children found no significant differences in racial attitudes between the two groups of children.

 

In 1983, Ruth McRoy and Louis Zurcher reported the findings of their study of 30 black adolescents who had been transracially adopted and 30 black adolescents who had been adopted by black parents.

 

In the concluding chapter of their book, McRoy and Zurcher wrote:

The transracial and inracial adoptees in the authors' study were physically healthy and exhibited typical adolescent relationships with their parents, siblings, teachers, and peers. Similarly, regardless of the race of their adoptive parents, they reflected positive feelings of self-regard.

Throughout the book, the authors emphasized that the quality of parenting was more important than whether the black child had been in-racially or transracially adopted: "Most certainly, transracial adoptive parents experience some challenges different from inracial adoptive parents, but in this study, all of the parents successfully met the challenges."

 

In 1988, Joan Shireman and Penny Johnson described the results of their study involving 26 in-racial (black) and 26 transracial adoptive families in Chicago. They reported very few differences between the two groups of eight-year-old adoptees. Using the Clark and Clark Doll Test to establish racial identity, 73 percent of the transracial adopted identified themselves as black, compared to 80 percent for the in-racially adopted black children. The authors concluded that 75 percent of the transracial adoptees and 80 percent of the in-racial adoptees appeared to be doing quite well. They also commented that the transracial adoptees had developed pride in being black and were comfortable in interaction with both black and white races.

 

In 1988, Richard Barth reported that transracial placements were no more likely to disrupt than other types of adoptions. The fact that transracial placements were as stable as other more traditional adoptive arrangements was reinforced by data presented in 1988 at a North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) meeting on adoption disruption. There it was reported that the rate of adoption disruptions averaged about 15 percent. Disruptions, they reported, did not appear to be influenced by the adoptees' race or gender or the fact that they were placed as a sibling group.

 

In 1993, Christopher Bagley compared a group of 27 transracial adoptees with a group of 25 inracially adopted whites. Both sets of adoptees were approximately 19 years old and were on average about two years old when adopted. Bagley concluded his study with the following statement:

 

The findings of the present study underscore those from previous American research on transracial adoption. Transracial adoption… appears to meet the psychosocial and developmental needs of the large majority of the children involved, and can be just as successful as inracial adoption.

 

In 1994, the Search Institute published Growing Up Adopted, a report that describes the results of interviews with 715 families who adopted infants between 1974 and 1980. When the survey was conducted in 1992-93, the adoptees' ages ranged from 12 to 18. A total of 881 adopted children, 1262 parents, and 78 non-adopted siblings participated in the study. Among the 881 adoptees, 289 were transracially adopted, of which the largest single group were 199 Koreans, who made up 23 percent of the total sample. The search study reported that 81 percent of the "same race" adoptees and 84 percent of the TRAs (of whom 68 percent were Korean) said, "I'm glad my parents adopted me."

Various "tests" of "mental health," "self-esteem," and "well-being" were given to the inracial adoptees and TRAs. The results are shown in the charts presented below:

 

Percent of Adolescents with High Self-Esteem

  Boys Girls
National Sample* 5l% 39%
All Transracial Adoptees 55 51
Asian TRAs 53 53
Same-Race Adoptees  63 53

 

[*National sample of public school adolescents; N=46799.]

Four Measures of Psychological Health
For Transracial and Same-Race Adoptions

Measure of Psychological  
Health

Range Scale Average Scale Average(in comparison to same-race group)
Index of Well-Being  0-16

All TRA

11.23

No difference
Asian

11.40

No difference
Same-race

11.08

 
At-Risk Behavior All 0-20 TRA

1.80

No difference
Asian

1.55

No difference
Same-race

1.78

 
Self-Rated Mental  Health  1-5 All TRA 4.10 No difference
Asian 4.07 No difference
Same-Race 4.11  
Achenbach 1-120 All TRA 44.63 No difference
Asian  43.94 No difference
Same-race 42.29  

 

On attachment to their families, the Search study found that transracial adoptees are more likely than same race adoptees to be attached to their parents — 65% for Asian, 62% for all TRAs, and 52% for same race adoptees.

 

In 1971-72 I contacted 206 families living in the five cities in the Midwest who were members of the Open Door Society and the Council on Adoptable Children (COAC) and asked whether she could interview them about their decision to adopt nonwhite children. All of the families but two (which declined for reasons unrelated to the adoption) agreed to participate in the study. The parents allowed a two-person team composed of one male and one female graduate student to interview them in their homes for 60 to 90 minutes at the same time that each of their children, who were between four and seven years old, was being interviewed for about 30 minutes. In total, 204 parents and 366 children were interviewed.

 

The number of children per family ranged from one to seven; this included birth as well as adopted children. Nineteen percent of the parents did not have any birth children. All of those families reported that they were unable to bear children.

Sixty-nine percent of the first-child adoptions were of children less than one year of age, compared to 80 percent of the second-child adoptions. One explanation for the greater proportion of younger adoptions the second time around is that adoption agencies were more likely to provide such families–who had already proved themselves by their successful first adoption- – with their most desirable and sought-after children, than they were to place such children in untried homes.

 

In 1972, only a minority of the families had considered adopting a nonwhite child initially. Most of them said they had wanted a healthy baby. When they found that they could not have a healthy white baby, they sought to adopt a healthy black, Indian, or Korean baby–rather than an older white child or a physically or mentally handicapped white child or baby. They preferred a child of another race to a child whose physical or mental handicaps might cause considerable financial drain or emotional strain. About 40 percent of the families intended or wanted to adopt nonwhite children because of their own involvement in the civil rights movement and as a reflection of their general sociopolitical views.

 

During the first encounter with the children in 1972 (adopted and birth) they were given a series of projective tests including the Kenneth Clark doll tests, puzzles, pictures, etc., that sought to assess racial awareness, attitudes and identity. Unlike all other previous doll studies, our respondents did not favor the White doll. It was not considered smarter, prettier, nicer, etc., than the Black doll either by White or Black children. Neither did any of the other tests reveal preferences for White or negative reactions to Black. Yet the Black and White children in our study accurately identified themselves as White or Black on those same tests. Indeed, the most important finding that emerged from our first encounter with the families in 1971-72 was the absence of a White racial preference or bias on the part of White birth children and the nonwhite adopted children.

 

Over the years, we continued to ask about and measure racial attitudes, racial awareness and racial identity among the adopted and the birth children. We also questioned the parents during the first three phases of the study about the activities, if any, in which they, as a family engaged to enhance their transracial adoptee's racial awareness and racial identity. We heard about dinner-time conversations involving race issues, watching the TV series "Roots," join Black churches, seeking Black Godparents, preparing Korean food, traveling to Native American festivals and related initiatives. As the years progressed, especially during adolescence, it was the children, rather than the parents, who were more likely to want to call a halt to some of these activities. "Not every dinner conversation has to be a lesson in Black history,: or "we are more interested in the next basketball or football games than in ceremonial dances" were comments we heard frequently from transracial adoptees as they were growing up.

In the 1983-84 phase, all of the children were asked to complete a self-esteem scale," which in essence measures how much respect a respondent has for herself or himself. A person is characterized as having high self-esteem if she or he considers herself or himself to be a person of worth. Low self-esteem means that the individual lacks self-respect. Because we wanted to make the best possible comparison among our respondents, we examined the scores of our black TRAs separately from those of the other TRAs and from those of the white born and white adopted children. As shown in Table 1 the scores for all four groups were virtually the same. No one group of respondents manifested higher or lower self-esteem than the others.

 

Table 1: Self Esteem Scores

Categories of  Respondents N Median Mean Standard Deviation
Black TRAs    86 17.8 18.1 3.49
Other TRAs   17 18.0 18.3 3.66
Birth Children   83 18.1 18.0 3.91
White/Adopted    15 18.0 18.5 3.16

 

The lack of differences among our adolescent responses was again dramatically exemplified in our findings on the "family integration scale," which included such items as the following: "People in our family trust one another;" "My parents know what I am really like as a person;" "I enjoy family life." The hypothesis was that adopted children would feel less integrated than children born into the families. But the scores reported by our four groups of respondents (black TRAs, other TRAs, white born, and white adopted) showed no significant differences; and indeed, among the three largest categories (not identical: 15.4, 15.2, and 15.4.

In 1983, we had asked the respondents to identify by race their three closest friends; 73 percent of the TRAs reported that their closest friend was white. Among the birth children, 89, 80, and 72 percent said their first, second, and third closest friends were white. In 1991, 53 percent of the TRAs said their closest friend was white, and 70 percent said their second and third closest friends were white. For the birth children, more than 90 percent said their three closest friends were white. Comparison of the two sets of responses–those reported in 1983 and those given in 1991–show that TRAs had shifted their close friendships from white to nonwhite and a higher percentage of the birth respondents had moved into a white world.

 

The next portion of the interview focused on a comparison of the respondents' perceptions of their relationship with their parents at the present time and when they were living at home during adolescence; on their reactions to their childhoods; and– for the TRAs–on how they felt about growing up in a white family.

 

Respondents' answers to the following question: "When you were an adolescent–and at the present time–how would you describe your relationship with your mother–and with your father?" The data indicate that, for the adopted as well as the birth children, relations with both parents improved between adolescence and young adulthood.

 

During adolescence, the TRAs had a more distant relationship with their mothers and fathers than did the birth children; but in the young adult years, more than 80 percent of both the TRAs and the birth children described their relationship to their mothers and their fathers as very or fairly close.

 

We asked the TRAs a series of questions about their relationships to family members during their childhood and adolescence, many of which focused on racial differences. The first such question was this: "Do you remember when you first realized that you looked different from your parents?" to which 75 percent answered that they did not remember. The others mentioned events such as "at family gatherings," "when my parents first came to school," or "on vacations," or "when we were doing out-of-the-ordinary activities," and "immediately, at the time of adoption." The latter response was made by children who were not infants at the time of their adoption.

 

That question was followed by this one: "How do you think the fact that you had a different racial background from your birth brother(s) and/or sister(s) affected your relationship with them as you were growing up?" Almost 90 percent of those who had siblings said it made little or no difference. The few others were divided among those who said that it had a positive effect, or a negative effect, or that they were not sure what, if any, effect it had.

 

We continued with this question: "Was being of a different race from your adoptive family easier or harder during various stages of your life?" Forty percent responded that they rarely found it difficult; eight percent said they found early childhood the easiest; and another eight percent said they had a difficult time throughout their childhood and adolescence. Twenty-nine percent said that people of the same racial background as their own reacted "very negatively" or "negatively" toward them during their adolescence. The other responses ranged from "neutral" (37 percent) to "positive" (10 percent) and "very positive (15 percent).

We asked the birth children how they felt about living in a family with black or other nonwhite siblings. Only one respondent reported "somewhat negative" feelings about having a sibling of a different race, and this same respondent felt his parents had made a mistake in their decision to adopt a black child. Thirty percent acknowledged that there were times during their childhood when they felt out of place in their families– for example, when their families participated in "ethnic ceremonies" or attended black churches. But when asked, "How do you think being white by birth but having nonwhite siblings affected how you perceive yourself today?" all but 13 percent answered that the experience "had no effect." The others cited positive effects such as "it broadened my understanding and it "made me think of myself as part of the human race rather than of any special racial category."

 

Among those children whose parents lived in the same community, all of the TRAs and the birth children said they saw their parents at least two or three times a month; most saw them almost every day or a couple of times a week.

 

On the 1983 survey, we asked the children a modified version of the following question: "If you had a serious personal problem (involving your marriage, your children, your health, etc.), who is the first person you would turn to; who is next; who is the third?" Two other problems were posed: "money," and "if you were in trouble with the law." In 1983, 46.8 percent of the TRAs chose a parent or a sibling; 45 percent of the birth children chose a parent or sibling; and 25 percent of the white adoptees chose a parent or a sibling.

 

In 1991–eight years later–when we again asked the children, "If you had a serious personal problem…," we found no evidence that TRAs were less integrated into their families than were the white children. The TRAs were as likely, or more likely, to turn to parents and siblings as were the birth or white adopted children. But in almost all instances, the first persons that children in all three categories turned to were their adopted parents or birth parents. For the TRAs, a sibling was the next person. For the birth children, spouses and/or girlfriends or boyfriends constituted the second likely choice. The birth children and the white adoptees were older than the TRAs (median age 26 and 25 vs. 22), and this may explain their lesser likelihood to turn to their parents for help or advice.

 

We believe that one of the important measures of the parents' unselfish love and concern about their adopted children may be found in their responses to the question about the birth parents. In 1983, approximately 40 percent of the parents told us that their children expressed interest in learning about their birth parents. Of those, seven percent also wanted to locate and meet one or both of their birth parents, and additional ten percent of the parents had already provided their adopted children with whatever information they had–even prior to, or in the absence of, the children's request. Out of the 40 percent whose children asked about their birth parents, only three parents were sufficiently threatened by the child's interest to refuse to provide the information they had.

 

Looking at the issue from the adoptees' perspective, we found that 38 percent of the TRAs had already tried or were planning to try to locate their birth parents. The others said that they had not decided or did not plan to try to find them. The most typical response was: "I am happy with my family. My other parents gave me up." Most of the adoptees did not have deeply rooted feelings about their reasons for wanting to locate their birth parents; curiosity seemed to characterize most of the feelings. Many said, "I would like to see what I will look like when I'm older." Those for whom the issue was more traumatic were children who were adopted when they were three or more years of age, had some memory of a mother, and felt a sense of abandonment or betrayal. They expressed their feelings in this rather muted phrase: "I'll feel incomplete until I do."

 

In the 1991 phase of the study, the transracial adoptees, who, by this time were young adults, were asked how they felt about the practice of placing nonwhite–especially Black– children in white homes, what recommendations they might have about adoption practices and what advice they might offer White parents who are considering transracial adoption. We also asked the respondents to evaluate their own experiences with transracial adoption.

 

We opened the topic by stating, "You have probably heard of the position taken by the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) and several councils of Native Americans strongly opposing transracial adoption. Do you agree or disagree with their position? Eighty percent of the adoptees and 70 percent of the birth children disagreed with the NABSW position. Among the latter, 17 percent agreed and 13 percent were not sure. Only 5 percent of the transracial adoptees agreed with NABSW's position. The others were not sure how they felt about the issue. The reasons most often given for why they disagreed were that "racial differences are not crucial," "TRA is the best practical alternative," and "having a loving, secure, relationship in a family setting is all-important."

 

One Black male adoptee said, "My parents have never been racist. They took shit for adopting two Black kids. I'm proud of them for it. The Black Social Workers' Association promotes a separatist ideology."

 

Another Black female commented, "It's a crock–it's just ridiculous. They [the NABSW] should be happy to get families for these children–period. My parents made sure we grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood. Now I am fully comfortable with who I am."

 

Another commented, "I feel lucky to have been adopted when I was very young [24 days]. I was brought up to be self-confident –to be the best I can. I was raised in an honest environment.

 

In response to the question, "Would you urge social workers and adoption agencies to place nonwhite children in a white home?" 70 percent of the TRAs and 67 percent of the birth children said yes without qualifications or stipulations. Almost all of the others placed some stipulations, the most common of which was that it should not be the placement of first choice– that a search should be made to find appropriate families of the same racial background as the children. The second most frequently mentioned stipulation was that the children should be placed with those white families who are "willing to make a commitment to exposing the child to his or her native culture."

 

We then shifted to a more personal note and asked, "How do you think being black (or where appropriate, Korean or Native American) and raised by white parents has affected how you perceive yourself today?" One-third of the TRAs thought the adoption had a positive effect on their self-image. One-third thought it had no effect, and one-third did not know what effect the adoption had on their self-image.

 

One male adoptee said, "Multicultural attitudes develop better children. I was brought up without prejudice. The experience is fulfilling and enriching for parents and children."

 

Our next question was this: "All things considered, would you have preferred to have been adopted by parents whose racial background was the same as yours?" Seven percent said yes; 67 percent said no; four percent said they were not sure or did not know; and 22 percent did not answer. When asked by they held the position they did, most said, in essence, "My life has worked out very well;" "My parents love me;" and/or "Race is not that important."

 

One female black adoptee believed she "got the best of both worlds. I can be myself and have black and white friends. I don't look at people for their race."

 

Another said, "The transracial adoption experience gives us an open view of the world. Prejudice comes from ignorance."

When asked what advice they would give to parents who have the opportunity to adopt a young child of "your racial background," and about how she or he should be reared, 91 percent advised mostly that such parents be sensitive to racial issues; nine percent advised that they reconsider.

 

One of the transracial adoptees who agrees with the position of the NABSW said, "I feel that I missed out on Black culture. I can sit and read a book about Martin Luther King, but it is not the same." His advice to white parents who adopt black children is this: "Make sure they [the TRAs] have the influence of Blacks in their lives; even if you have to go out and make friends with black families. It's a must–otherwise you are cheating them [the TRAs] of something valuable."

 

In the summer of 1997, the Princeton Survey Research Association, under the sponsorship of the Adoption Institute, conducted the first ever national survey of Public attitudes toward adoption. It consisted of 1,554 adults. Included in the survey were the following two questions:

1) Do you approve of a married couple who is white adopting a baby who is African American?

2) Do you approve of a married couple who is African American adopting a baby who is white?

Eighty percent of the respondents answered "yes" to the first question and 77 percent answered "yes" to the second question.

On August 20, 1996, President Clinton signed into law a provision that prohibits "a state or other entity that receives federal assistance from denying any person the opportunity to become an adoptive or a foster parent solely on the basis of the race, color, or national origin of the persons or of the child involved." The provision also prohibits a state from denying or delaying the placement of a child for adoption or foster care solely on the basis of race, color, or national origin of the adoptive or foster parent of the child involved. The federal statute went into effect on January 1, 1997.

 

In the more than eighteen months that have gone by since the statute went into effect, there are no systematic data available as to its impact. In the beginning of September, 1998 I initiated a study that seeks to provide systematic data on the impact of the federal statute. The study involves a mail survey to the following groups of people:

State Directors of Human Resources,
and other persons directly involved
in adoptions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 71

Public Adoption Agencies . . . . . . . . . . . 233

Private Adoption Agencies . . . . . . . . . . 529

Members of the Academy of Adoption
Attorneys of America (AAAA) . . . . . . . . 257

Public Support Groups . . . . . . . . . . . . . 52

In total 1142 letters and questionnaires have gone out to the target population listed above. In addition to relying on the responses to the mail surveys, phone calls will be made to collect more detailed information about the number of minority children available for adoption, the number of minority children in foster care and institutions, the number of transracial placements, the obstacles that parties seek to adopt across racial lines (i.e. foster parents and others seeking to adopt) have encountered, and the number of instances in which parties involved have gone to court. Along with the mail survey, and the in-depth telephone interviews, the print media will be searched for stories about transracial adoption, and personal interviews will be conducted with parties involved in a transracial adoption.

 

On a personal and anecdotal level, I can report that the law does not appear to be making it easier for children to be adopted across racial lines. Since January 1997 I have testified in three cases in three states in support of granting a white family custody of the right to adopt an African-American or mixed race child for whom they have served as foster parents. In two of those cases the request was denied, the third case is still pending.

 

In closing, I believe it is important to emphasize that all of the research findings support transracial adoptions and show them to serve the children's best interests. The case against transracial adoptions is built primarily on ideology and rhetoric. There is no empirical or scientific evidence to demonstrate that transracial adoptions work against the best interests of children.

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